My first trip to the Languedoc did not go as I expected. Rather than piercing deep into an unknown, unexplored realm, I instead felt a strange, through-the-looking-glass sense of homecoming. The Languedoc’s craggy hills and wild friche, while a world away from the climate of Vouvray or Chablis, resembled uncannily the scattered Chaparral that surrounded me growing up in the hills above San Diego, California. The Langedocien farmhouses, designed to temper both the burning summer heat and winter chills, were copied extensively in the postwar California sub-developments that have metastasized from the Pacific Coast into the foothills of the Peninsular range. The omnipresent Tramontane winds, howling down from the Pyrenees, recalled the annual Santa Anas rushing out toward the Pacific (and bringing with them the terror of fire season).
I am, apparently, not the only Californian who felt comfortable and somewhat at home in the Languedoc, and the effort to “bring the new world to the old,” made infamous by the Mondavi family’s attempts to expand its empire into this corner of France, still haunts the region’s relationship with the American wine community.
This region’s Californian connection, however uncanny, is not what made me return to the wines of Mas Jullien and Mas Cal Demoura over the past few weeks. This impulse toward two of RWM’s most undervalued growers was triggered by, of all things, a 1963 Belgian pop sung composed and performed by Dominican nun Jeannine Deckers. Bizarre in its juxtaposition of Catholic evangelism and 1960’s pop, the first verse of “Sœur Sourire” (Sister Smiley) grabbed my attention most:
D’Angleterre était le roi.
Dominique notre père,
combattit les Albigeois.
S’en allait tout simplement,
Routier, pauvre et chantant.
En tous chemins en tous lieux,
Il ne parle que du bon Dieu.
Il ne parle que du bon Dieu.
Certain jour un hérétique
Par des ronces le conduit
Mais notre père, Dominique
Par sa joie le convertit.
In the age when John the Landless
Of England was the King.
Dominique, our father,
attacked the Albigensians.
Went off quite simply
A wanderer, poor and singing.
On all paths, in all places
He spoke only of the good Lord.
He spoke only of the good Lord.
One day a heretic
Led him to some brambles
But our father Dominique
Through his joy converted him.
The last line of the first stanza, a throwaway remark to a 13th-century crusade, would mean little to many a Frenchman north of Lyon, and even less to those beyond France’s borders. That often overlooked medieval century piece of trivia, though, is foundational to today’s Languedoc, and undergirds the region’s longstanding suspicion and resentment of Paris rule. The Albigensian Crusade, which Jeannine Deckers cheerfully praises alongside harmless missionary work, was in fact a trail of massacres carried out by professional soldiers against the local civilian population from Montpellier to Toulouse, who had embraced Catharism, a variety of Christianity declared heretical by the Catholic church. The most heavily Cathar city was Albi, which lent its name to the Albigensian movement. During the crusade, northern mercenaries burned whole villages to the ground, slaughtered entire families, and burned and uprooted miles of vineyards and crops.11 Joseph R. Strayer, The Albigensian Crusades (New York: The Dial Press, 1971), 62. Famine and mass thirst were inflicted against the entire Languedoc to bend it to Paris’s will, and the crusade was more or less complete by 1229.22 Strayer, The Albigensian Crusades, 136.
With the reconquest completed, the French Crown turned to inquisition to root out and extinguish any remaining heresy or opposition. Rather than an exercise of over-brimming joy, as Deckers would have her listeners believe, Friars of the Dominican order (named for Dominic/Dominique) would wander the countryside, hunting for Albigensians. Resistance continued in the countryside for generations, but a mass burning of 200 heretics in the village of Montségur ended organized Albigensian life in Southern France.33 Jonathan Sumption, The Albigensian Crusade (London: Faber, 1978), 238-240. Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the term genocide, argued that the Albigensian Crusade is one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history.44 Raphael Lemkin, ed. Steven Leonard Jacobs (Lemkin on Genocide, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield), 71. In addition to mass death and suffering, the Languedoc and France’s Southwest were left without their traditional societal and cultural institutions after the crusade. Toulouse lost all independence and regional power, and the Languedoc and Gascony were definitively severed from Barcelona, whose old Catalan was identical to old Occitan.55 Peter Lock, The Routledge Companion to the Crusades (New York: Routledge, 2006), 165. While Catalan thrives across the Pyrenees, Occitan has totally lost relevancy in Montpellier, Carcassonne, and Toulouse, and clings to life in the countryside.
Though Cathars and Albigensians have not ruled the Languedoc for centuries, local resistance to northern takeover never vanished. Once Jean Calvin began preaching the reformation, the Languedoc eagerly seized the opportunity to break from the Paris-supported catholic church. Though the Huguenots, as these followers came to be known, like the Cathars before them, were massacred and largely expelled from France, one of the few regions where they remain in significant numbers is the Cévennes foothills of the northern Languedoc.
These foothills, where local culture has survived better than down on the plains, have always been and still are ideal for viticulture. It is from these iron-rich soils atop limestone bedrock that two of the most impactful growers in RWM’s portfolio wrest soulful, evocative wines from their semi-arid homeland. For decades this region, still defiantly uncooperative with Paris, was denied an appellation, and had to hock its wines alongside over-cropped, anonymous wines from the plains below. Eschewing the 1990’s craze for new oak and super-extraction (and previous efforts to mimic the grands châteaux of Bordeaux), Olivier Jullien, like the Cathars and Huguenots before him, returned to the equilibrium that has been present in these foothills for centuries. His methods were straightforward: native grape varieties, cultivated organically without irrigation, and non-intervention in the cellar to produce long-lived, brooding wines. Perhaps rather than try to bring the new world to the Languedoc, California vintners should bring the Languedoc’s ways to California.
With Mas Jullien and Mas Cal Demoura (founded by Olivier’s father) leading the charge toward traditional, high-quality wines, the Paris-based INAO relented and granted the Terrasses du Larzac AOC status in 2005. The nearly entirely forgotten Albigensian Crusade, though, is not lost on local Languedocian vintners, who even after achieving AOC status still bestow names on their cuvées such as “Les Hérétiques” “Cuvée des Cathars,” and “Cuvée L’Infidèle.” Cathar crosses grace many a Languedoc wine label, and understanding the crusade and its impact on contemporary identity in the Languedoc is key to reaching a deeper level of engagement with these wines.
Mas Cal Demoura’s 2011 Cuvée L’Infidèle, for example, pairs perfectly with dishes as diverse as duck confit, seared mushrooms, and Texas barbecue, and its roaring tannins and imposing minerality ensure that the wine can age for decades. Mas Jullien’s Lous Rougeos, titled defiantly in Occitan, comes from Olivier’s highest altitude vineyard. Olivier has always loved and respected Carignan for its particular affinity to the soils and climate of this part of the Languedoc, and for its ability to express profound minerality. The Carignan, blended with Syrah and Grenache, displays the finesse and freshness that the Languedoc can achieve when its sunny climate is not paired to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Autour de Jonquières, Olivier’s longest aged cuvée, is also built on a foundation of Carignan, but incorporates a splash of Syrah and a large portion of sun-loving Mourvèdre. Both wines, tense and able to age for decades, speak clearly of this native environment that for too long has been relegated to Paris’s wine lake. Beyond their wines’ simple tasting notes, though, Mas Cal Demoura and Mas Jullien, represent a culture and way of life that has persevered for centuries in the face of innumerable challenges, setbacks, and calamities. Southwest France is not unique in its difference from Parisian France; Brittany, Alsace, and many regions more all boast their own languages, costumes, cuisines, and histories, but the Cévennes are unique in the ferocity and doggedness of their isolation and non-conformity—linguistic, religious, agricultural, and economic. May we all raise our glasses to those like Olivier and Jean-Pierre Jullien (and Jean-Pierre’s successors Isabelle and Vincent Goumard) who, faced with their region’s possible decline, dug in, fought, and brought a renaissance that allows the world to experience the rebellious Languedoc in vinous form.